“I don’t think really good art is come by easily,” says virtuoso drag performer BenDeLaCreme. “It’s something we really have to work for.”
In pandemic-riddled 2020, a year when doing seemingly anything requires a lot of work, this idea holds truer than ever. In the case of BenDeLaCreme and creative partner Jinkx Monsoon, the resulting art, The Jinkx and DeLa Holiday Special, is of a quality commensurate with the challenges that forged it.
DeLa, whose given name is Ben Putnam, has spent the past 14 years carving out a career as one of the premier drag acts in America, staging a series of successful off-Broadway shows and touring internationally. Prior to 2020, DeLa had a jam-packed schedule each year, capped off by an annual touring Christmas show with her friend and peer Jinkx Monsoon. (Indeed, the show is so popular that one fan, filmmaker Clea DuVall, put the two performers in the recent hit lesbian rom-com, Happiest Season, as a Christmas-themed drag duo.)
This year’s evisceration of live events has brought with it a Santa sack full of challenges for making a living as a performer. In order to maintain their rising profiles, DeLa and Jinkx had to innovate their approach.
Fortunately, innovation is an indispensable part of any self-respecting drag queen’s repertoire.
Competing on RuPaul’s Drag Race—which BenDeLaCreme did in the show’s sixth season in 2014, and which Jinkx Monsoon did the previous year—is a whirlwind microcosm of a drag queen’s entire career. Each week, the performers all have to rise above their inner saboteurs and smack-talking competitors while adapting to the judges’ withering critiques and evolving both in wardrobe and attitude.
It was an atmosphere DeLa was ready for, having by then already risen through the ranks of the Seattle drag scene to become a full-time entertainer. She was committed to her craft, writing and producing shows for herself, and even making her own sets, props, and costumes at times. She had also already started collaborating with Jinkx before either had ever set foot in RuPaul’s Werk Room, having cast her in a Christmas show in 2010.
Appearing on Drag Race can either be a launchpad for a queen’s career or the pinnacle of it. DeLa was determined to avoid the latter. After winning the fan-favorite award of Miss Congeniality in her first season (she would return eventually for Drag Race All-Stars 3), she handily got booked in nightclubs all around America. Her heart was set, though, on staging the more theatrical, narrative pieces she’d established herself with in Seattle. She had to find a way to use her post-Drag Race notoriety, which could potentially have been fleeting, to elevate her art.
“Drag Race will get people to come to a show, but it won’t bring them back a second time,” DeLa says. “You can go on TV and flash in the pan for a few months and then that can be it if you don’t have something to say and a strong way to say it and something to deliver.”
What DeLa delivered next was Terminally Delightful, her first off-Broadway solo show in New York. It was a hit, the run length extending agin and again as word of mouth spread beyond the Drag Race set to the city’s overall cabaret connoisseurs.
In the years that followed, she launched three more successful Off-Broadway solo shows, eventually performing some of them internationally.
But none of her tours were quite as popular as the Christmas shows she eventually created with Jinkx Monsoon, starting with 2018’s To Jesus, Thanks for Everything! Beyond helping the pair win over fans like Clea DuVall, these shows started filling up larger venue’s like Manhattan’s Town Hall. Considering all the momentum behind these shows, and in Jinkx and DeLa’s careers in general, the 2020 iteration of the Christmas show was destined to be the most spectacular yet.
At least, that was the plan.
After moving to Los Angeles on March 1, DeLa’s first West Coast show of the year was canceled due to brewing COVID fears. Pretty soon, she had to put on hold the entire U.S. and U.K. tours she’d scheduled for her latest solo show, Ready to be Committed, before formally cancelling them.
And then DeLa didn’t leave her house very much for the rest of the year.
“It was really just this scary, uncertain time for me and every other performer I know,” she says. “We were all like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve really gotta shift gears and figure this out.'”
Like many other entertainers, DeLa experimented with Zoom shows, cobbling together a greatest hits bouillabaisse of solo material from her various theatrical runs. Looming in the distance, above all the COVID-19 chaos, was the question of this year’s Christmas tour with Jinkx. Both performers remained clinging to their hopes until summer set in and it became clear that the show would not go on.
Or maybe it just might.
At first, the two discussed attempting a socially distanced show, but that idea seemed (correctly) unwise to bank on. Later, they considered staging and recording a live show without an audience, and making it available online. That idea didn’t seem right either. DeLa is a firm believer in the magic of live theater, the crackling energy of a unique experience that changes in barely perceptible ways night after night. It’s the reason she’s never released any of her other live performances on video, despite a pronounced demand.
As DeLa saw it, there was only one solution: Adapt this year’s Christmas show into a movie.
“I was just like, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re not going to write it like a stage show; we’re going to write it like a screenplay. We’re not going to shoot it like a stage show; we’re gonna shoot it like it’s a film,” she says. “We’re going to take advantage of what you can do in film that you can’t do on stage, because otherwise it’s just gonna feel watered down.”
DeLa and Jinkx brought on a support team of film industry vets, with DeLa serving as director, and proceeded through uncharted territory to create The Jinkx and DeLa Holiday Special. It’s a bawdy, bombastic, song-filled extravaganza—with jokes for days—marrying the high-camp aesthetic of their touring show with the warm feeling of a classic TV Christmas special.
The cinematic format allowed the pair to ditch the laws of physics in some scenes, with props appearing and disappearing at random, instant costume changes, and flashbacks to secondary locations. It was also a chance to play with the kind of nuance in performance that one can’t quite pull off in a 2,000-seat theater, utilizing the close-up to accomplish with an eyebrow what ordinarily might take a double arm-wave.
Of course, the very reason this year’s show had to be adapted into a movie, the pandemic, made it that much more difficult to make the movie. (Nods to the COVID of it all are laced into banter between the film’s stars.) Everyone had to self-quarantine for two weeks before filming and have regular testing during the shoot. In between takes, they all had to walk around in PPE and keep space between each other, all under the watchful eye of a COVID-19 safety officer.
The daunting, complicated demands of the project were ultimately worth it, though. For a lot of reasons.
“Making this thing in six months would have been hard even without a pandemic, but I think the pandemic helped to fuel it because we were all so grateful and overwhelmingly excited to be making art again, together,” DeLa says. “And it was something that we felt was important especially this year, when people really need some joy in their lives.”
The list of people in more need of holiday cheer than usual is legion, and includes just about every drag performer. It’s been a tough year for many queens who are unable to perform live outside of Zoom shows, which are difficult to make dynamic. But while those without the resources, platform, or demand that DeLa and Jinkx enjoy are likely not making films in 2020, many of them are also finding their own pathways, and counting on fans, both old and new, for support.
“I definitely think that in the age of COVID, drag performers are going to continue to have a lot of ingenuity around how they get to their fans and how they give to their fans,” DeLa says. “And so, I think we’ll probably continue to work in all of these mediums and we’re just gonna keep rolling. Whatever 2021 dishes out, we’re gonna figure out how to make it work for us.”